Appreciating Architecture

About 2,000 years ago a Roman builder retired with a state pension and sat down to write a comprehensive reference book about Architecture. It is the oldest book on the subject to survive today and all subsequent theory and practice is closely related to its content, either through agreement, further development, or as a point of departure in views. The man Vitruvius distilled a trinity of interrelating concepts from the myriad concerns which need to be borne in mind, in order to help people both appreciate Architecture and to focus upon the ultimate purpose of the exercise when embarking upon a new housing project. He said firmitas (strength), utilitas (usefulness), and venustas (beauty) were all necessary. His tome stretched to ten volumes and was written mainly for the benefit of the patrons who commissioned new buildings, offering his readers the wisdom that would make them like gods in their ability to bestow life and health upon the people their structures accommodated. He enticed wealthy benefactors to build well so that they might be remembered through many years to come, immortalized for their well-built, useful, and delightful good works and the goodness they had done to countless generations of human beings. Vitruvius went into some detail. Everything we may today wish to say about Architecture was said, and new materials, technology, and innovations can still be listed beneath his three main headings without altering the truths contained therein. What very long and scientifically absorbing lists can be compiled on this subject and how very valuable it is to draw attention back to the point!

When those commissioning new buildings, and the builders themselves, ignore any of the imperatives of this subject, in their full architectural breadth and depth, they construct a house of cards. Every now and then, when collapse is the inevitable and undeniable outcome, it is necessary to shuffle the deck again and thereby present the face and value of the time-old lessons about the “art of good building” in a different way in order to get the teaching across as is vitally required. The housing situation in the UK at this point in time is precarious to say the least. The Church of England estimates that there are around 8 million people in these lands living in environments that are injurious to health, putting lives at risk. Far more people are living in housing which, whilst considered safe, is thoughtlessly unsatisfying, one way or another depriving the occupants of the ability to live their lives to the full in a humane and ethical way (one of the objectives and benefits shared by all when living in a Christian land). So, the Church of England has just presented its fresh hand, with the content of its expected standards for home-building summarised under each finger and a thumb: sustainable, safe, stable, sociable and satisfying. The Church leaders appear to wish all hands to now be placed on deck, at the service of God. It wishes to correct misunderstandings and to place responsibility into hands that care. The Church of England has an important and meaningful theology centred about the home and is calling parishes and other church organisations to lead the way in resolving the current housing crisis as a focus of witness and mission.

These five newly-written criteria (sustainable, safe, stable, sociable, and satisfying) do all extend from the Vitruvian trinity of firmitas (which needs to be sustainable - ecological - and safe - structurally salubrious), utilitas (which needs to be stable - having secure entitlement of occupancy as well as being affordable- and sociable - a place where the occupants are able to feel at home, provide hospitality to others, and theologically very importantly to experience a foretaste of living in heaven), and venustas (which entails being a satisfying place to dwell in - sensibly aligned with one's sensibilities in a such way that brings a true sense of delight).

A proper understanding of the necessity for Architecture may seem impertinently over-demanding in the current situation where the population counts its housing blessings in pounds sterling and many people now pat themselves on the back for being millionaires because they own old cottages that were once put together in a hurry with amateur labour, and cheap waste materials, to provide simple shelter for poor agricultural labourers who worked the adjacent land. However, it is wise to remember Vitruvius, as well as Christian teaching, that buildings are supposed to serve human needs; it is not their role to degrade the true human identity by exchanging it for a caricature to suit a bad building’s arbitrary stylization. The human soul and the glory of the natural environment may be compromised and diminished by bad buildings, but there is still a deeper plan and purpose which is God-given. Only the unabridged “art of good building” can result in the immortality that Vitruvius proposed is merited by those who can bestow life and health upon the people who inhabit their buildings. If their eternal souls share in the continued sense of delight that their buildings' occupants enjoy through their foresight and conscientious generosity, they might well experience a type of happy immortality. Whilst some might say that people ought not to be trying to immortalize themselves in a religiously-diverse yet still Christian land, surely the converse claim that it is modestly appropriate to provide death and health-destroying buildings is a perversely demonic ambition and not to be bowed to?